It's the classic expat nightmare scenario, on par in its ability to induce nocturnal terror with the sudden realization that you're not wearing any pants as you make that big presentation: You confidently pull out your passport and hand it to the nice uniformed official, only to be reprimanded in a scathing stream of Putonghua. Your visa has expired! A crowd of curious onlookers gathers and begins to chatter, pointing and laughing....
Fortunately, Hong Kong and sweet visa relief are a short flight away. And even better, it's a world-class destination for everything from shopping to hiking to clubbing and dining. So make the most of your next quick trip to the SAR, stay an extra day or two if you can, and squeeze as good a time as possible in while taking care of business. Simply wandering the city's neon streets, hopping on the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor, taking the Peak Tram and grabbing dim sum for breakfast and fresh seafood for dinner make for a great first-time experience; on return trips or with a couple of extra days to fill, you'll certainly want to dig a little deeper.
On our last run, we decided we wanted to balance urban intensity with a slight health kick and some hiking in the SAR's great outdoors. In the span of three days, not only did we manage to resolve an unexpected last-minute visa crisis (be sure your travel partner has a multiple entry visa before leaving the Mainland) with the assistance of the Continental Hotel's crack concierge staff (it's well worth the service fees to let the pros handle it), but we also got in a some great time on the trails and beaches, fueled by healthy food and a couple of boozy nights in the urban jungle.
The Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak is a must at least once, but there's much more fun to be had if you're willing to walk back down. After an amazing oyster sampler featuring specimens flown in from the world's best oyster beds and a bit of champagne on The Look's garden patio, we took in the view from atop the garish mall-in-the-sky Peak Tower and then headed down the mountain. A number of trails are accessible from the Peak, all of which take you through stretches of lush forest, can trick you into forgetting you're in one of the world's greatest metropolises. If you're really ambitious, the 50 kilometer Hong Kong Trail offers the greatest challenge (it's just barely doable in a long day). We opted for a gentler two-hour descent into Central. An amazing array of flora crowds the roads and trails, giving way here and there to reveal dramatic views of the city below and the harbor beyond, with the occasional pocket shrine tucked into the side of the mountain, incense smoldering and offerings of fruit lined up, creating an eerie zone of calm above the teeming city streets below.
Tempted—as one endlessly is in Hong Kong—by the city's abundant luxury, we then took the city's other famous means of public transportation, the Star Ferry, across to check out the breathtaking view from Tsim Sha Tsui's Japanese-Italian fusion success, Aqua, perched atop the One Peking Road building. After a healthy martini or few and some excellent sashimi, we headed back on the ferry, heads gently spinning after a day perfectly balanced between the best the outdoors and indoors have to offer.
The next day's hike took us further afield, across the waters to Lamma Island, a car-free island just a short ferry ride from the Star Ferry Pier. Lamma is just the right size for a day trip and the lack of motorized traffic is tonic for the overtaxed urban soul. The island's 13.6 kilometers are home to 5,000 some people and at least twice as many cats. Seafood restaurants cluster near the ferry piers at Yung Shue Wan, where the ferry from Central arrives, and Sok Kwu Wan, which connects to Aberdeen. In between is a network of trails that run through charming wooded neighborhoods of small homes and along beaches and steep hillsides.
Our top green find of the day was the Herboland at Hung Shing Yeh Beach, home to an organic farm and a great place for a snack and a cup of tea after the hour hike from Yung Shue Wan (lest you forget where you really are, a massive power station looms on the other side of the bay, adding a surreal note to the otherwise idyllic scene). After a gorgeous South China Sea sunset and another round of fine seafood at the waterside Lamma Hilton Shum Kee Seafood Restaurant (no relation to Paris or anyone in her family), we took another night ferry back to Hong Kong Island.
On our last day, visas securely in hand, we set out to on a morning urban hike, heading west from our hotel next to the Happy Valley Racecourse (we'll make our next visa run a punter's holiday). We sampled the excellent vegetarian lunch the Fringe Club's Roof Garden, a lovely green spot from which to take in the surrounding high-rise cityscape. Shanghai veterans should also note the Fringe Club is home of M on the Fringe, M on the Bund's sister restaurant, as well as galleries, studios and performance spaces, making it a definite return destination. We had to pass up the Life Café at Shelly Street off Hollywood Road, but the fantastic organic and fair trade menu café has us determined to check it out next time around.
We closed out our visa vacation with a double-decker tram/bus combo trip out to the beach town of Shek-O, nestled in a small bay on Hong Kong Island's rocky eastern coast. Even on cooler days when the beach doesn't tempt, Shek-O and the peninsula to its north make for a great hour or two of walking and hiking, with the peninsula and its pavilion providing dramatic views of the sea. In the hot months, the beach—one of the island's best—is just remote enough to be spared overwhelming crowds.
Our self-designated theme was green Hong Kong (with decadent time off for good behavior), but the city, of course, offers something for everyone. If you've got your own favorite Hong Kong tips, let us know about them at email@example.com by 15 March. You'll get 1,000 Ctrip points for your trouble and unlimited travel karma for helping your fellow expats add some fun to that last-minute visa run. (If you don't have a Ctrip Card, it's a great way to get discounts on flights, hotels, dining and shopping around China; visit Ctrip.com to register).
Staying There: On our most recent run, we stayed at the affordable and efficient Cosmopolitan, just across the street from the Happy Valley Racetrack in Wan Chai. A good a pick for punters as it is for shoppers, with the Times Square mall a short walk away. Convenient to trams, buses and the Metro. We also had amazing assistance with our last-minute visa crisis from the concierge, who arranged a one-day weekend turnaround for a reasonable service fee. Rooms run around HKD 975 and, if you book through Ctrip, they come with a discount.
Getting There: Flights depart daily from Shanghai; and good deals can be found on short notice. Try Ctrip's International Flights hotline at: 400-820-6666 (from your mobile) or 800-820-6666 (land line). When you connect, dial 6 for English-language service. Convenient ticket delivery in Shanghai makes it all the easier for last-minute trips. Once in Hong Kong, the quickest way into the city is via the handy Airport Express train (HKD100). Avoid hotel shuttle buses like the plague, as they can easily get bogged down in traffic once in town, burning precious time.